Bristol 1944: Coffee, Doughnuts and a Lost Dog-Tag

A few years ago one of my students found a metal label in the grounds of Bristol School of Art in Clifton. She had been in the military and recognised it as an American military dog-tag from the Second World War. My son took an interest and contacted the US Embassy in London who very helpful.

Sometime between November 10 and December 24, 1944, a US Army corporal called Laures Champlin visited the American Red Cross Club at the Royal West of England Academy in Queens Road, Clifton. Presumably, along with coffee and doughnuts, he took advantage of the shower block put up by the army in the back-yard. In the process he lost one of his dog-tags which ended up in the dirt outside the shower block entrance. Champlin came from Louisiana and was a truck driver with the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion. They had arrived at Avonmouth Docks from New York on November 10 and were stationed nearby in Sea Mills awaiting posting to Europe in the follow up to the Normandy Landings in June. On Christmas Eve they left by train for Southampton and shipment to France.

That’s the basic story. Along the way we were able to add lots more detail about the Americans in Bristol in 1944 and the of the 244th Engineers. We originally wrote it up for the Bristol Times in 1999 but responses to the article and recent building work at the Art School have brought more to light. We now have four characters to work with.

The Royal West of England Academy in WWII

The Academy building in Queens Road was built in 1858 to accommodate two separate institutions; upstairs the West of England Academy, an artists’ body with exhibition galleries and meeting rooms modelled on the Royal Academy in London and downstairs the School of Practical Art (now Bristol School of Art). When the Second World War broke out in 1939 both continued to operate normally although many students were called up. Things changed in 1944 as the military build up began for D-Day and the Normandy Landings. Bristol was an important entry point for American troops and equipment, and the decision was taken to establish the US First Army commander General Omar Bradley’s headquarters at Clifton College. Many local buildings and open spaces were commandeered to act as offices, camps and billets for the US forces. The Art School continued to operate normally through the war but the (by now Royal) West of England Academy upstairs was taken over as an American Red Cross Club. The clubs served fresh coffee and doughnuts and offered music and dancing (no alcohol). The RWA was for white US soldiers only – black US troops had a separate club in Great George Street. Bigger events such as band concerts were held at the Victoria Rooms over the road. American women Red Cross staff ran the clubs assisted by locals.

The dog-tag was found just in front of a small outbuilding in the garden. Looking at it with a fresh eye, it is familiar as the kind of prefabricated concrete structure often seen on wartime airfield and hospital sites. Known as a Ministry of Works and Procurement (MOPW) Standard Hut, they were built in large numbers although not usually in the backyards of art galleries and art schools. There were two sizes and this one is actually half of a small one with a tower in one corner for a water tank and a boiler below. Markings on the floor suggested stalls. A brick and concrete staircase added to the back of the main building at the same time, links the art gallery on the upper floor to the garden, effectively avoiding the art school. It seems the hut provided shower and washroom facilities appropriate to the new busy use for the art gallery in 1944. It seems a reasonable guess that Laures lost his dog-tag(s) whilst taking the opportunity for a shower.

The wartime MOPW Hut / shower block behind the Royal West of England Academy building in Clifton. The tower held the hot water tank.

Interior of the MOPW Hut in use by the art school as a sculpture studio in the 1990s.

Wartime Utility coffee mugs and plates, an American aftershave and sample size shampoo bottles uncovered by recent building work near the MOWP hut.

This winter, building work in front of the hut has disturbed the ground where the dog-tag was found and revealed a small dump of wartime pottery and glass. The china consists largely of ‘utility’ white plates and mugs produced under government control and marked G VI R with the date 1944. These were made primarily for military use and issued to NAAFI, Red Cross and evidently American Red Cross kitchens and mobile canteens. The glass includes American Aqua Velva aftershave and sample size Drene shampoo bottles and shards of a clear glass Coca Cola bottle of a type made for the US Army.

The garden soil has also given up a second dog-tag, this one belonging to Coastguardsman Kenyon D. Clauson of the US Coastguard Reserve. The main overseas role of the USCGR was as crew for troopships and landingcraft. Another story.

Laures Champlin and the 244th Engineers

The US Embassy in London and various organisations in the States have been very helpful in enabling us to find out more about our soldier and his unit. T5 (Corporal) Laures Edwin Champlin came from Jonesville in Concordia Parish on the Mississippi in Louisiana. His family were farmers. He served as a truck driver with the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion and was 18, coming up 19, when he arrived at Avonmouth docks on November 10, 1944. The 244th Engineers were a specialist unit tasked primarily with road repair and construction, an essential role but one that tends not to get much mention in the history books.

18 year old Laures Champlin as a new recruit in the summer of 1944 (photo courtesy of the Champlin family).

At the US Army Military History Institute in Pennsylvania is a 60-page account of the adventures of the 244th Engineers from recruitment to discharge, written by Sergeant Edward Hagerty and some other members of B Company while waiting to return home from France in late 1945 (Laures Champlin was in C Company). In it the larger picture of the war is replaced by an eye-witness account in which food and warmth are as important as anything. The Battalion spent six weeks living in the camp in Sea Mills. Exploring Bristol brought their first experience of the effects of war; coming into the city, they found the blackout difficult and they were shocked by the extent of the damage caused by bombing. Hagerty ‘As Christmas Day drew near everyone in the Co. decided to give their candy rations to the orphans who lived in an old castle on a hill in Shirehampton (presumably Nazareth House). On the 23rd of Dec. Madden and I took the rations in a big basket up to the children as the Co’s Christmas present to them.’ On their return to camp they were met with the news that the Battalion had been ordered to leave for France the following day. Food for Christmas Day was all ready for preparation but had to be put away as their trucks, supplies and kit were loaded on to rail wagons at Avonmouth Station.

They had to walk to Avonmouth to catch the train – it seems odd now to think of young soldiers going off to war along the Severn Beach line through the Avon Gorge and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. At Southampton ‘We pulled into a large freight terminal and once again the Red Cross was prepared for us. We ruined their supply of “coffee and” in nothing flat. We were really hungry and didn’t mind showing it.’

Arriving at Le Havre, minus their trucks and equipment somehow left behind in Avonmouth, the 244th were soon faced with freezing conditions. Short of basic kit they had to improvise cooking facilities and took up fishing and hunting for extra supplies. Once reequipped, they began repairing roads and when laying a minefield in mid-January they had their first confusing experience of hostile shelling. Their big show came with the Rhine crossing in March, 1945, when they worked under fire to build approach roads on both sides of the Rhine at the Wallace bridging point near Wesel. The Bailey bridge was claimed to be the largest ever built. Later they briefly saw front line action as infantry before taking part in the crossing of the Elbe in northern Germany at war’s end.

Laures Champlin was awarded the Good Conduct Medal and after the war retrained and joined the US Air Force as a radio repairman. He died in 1972, and his family in Louisiana must have been a little surprised to hear from Bristol. They say that he mentioned getting into trouble for losing his dog-tags but he never knew where he had lost them. They have kindly provided photographs of him – looking very young in his crisp new uniform.

Laures Champlin in 1946. (photo courtesy of the Champlin family)

With thanks to the United States Embassy in London, Philippa Barton, Ben Kent and the Champlin family.

References

Hagerty, Sgt. Edward D., 1946. Old Company “B”. 244th Engineer Combat Battalion. (unpublished manuscript). College Park, MD: US Army Military History Institute/National Archives at College Park.

Kent, Oliver, 1999. ‘Dog-tag clue to forgotten soldier’. Bristol Times. (Bristol Evening Post supplement). Oct 19, 1999, 3.

Sansom, John, (Ed), 2002. Public View. A Profile of The Royal West of England Academy. Bristol: Redcliffe.

Thomas, Ethel, 1989. War Story. Bristol: Ethel Thomas.

Wakefield, K., 1994. Operation Bolero. The Americans in Bristol and the West Country, 1942-45. Crècy Books.

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